This much I know: John A Murphy

I was born in Macroom, the youngest of four.

I was a very bookish boy and in 1945 I won a County Council scholarship to study history at UCC. I could never have been able to go there on my parents’ slender resources.

It was a personal liberation to go into that class where the presence of girls was a new and welcome experience. I stayed in the Honan Hostel, where the O’Reilly Building now stands, which was a great experience as it had the air of a mini-university in its own right.

Professor James Hogan had a huge influence on my career. He was professor of history at that time. I became one of his star students. He was an intellectual adventurer and I was fascinated by him. He took me under his wing and course and encouraged me to do a postgraduate and acted as my unselfish mentor.

I came to university to get on and I think I made my own luck. As regards the bigger picture, I don’t know. I don’t see any pattern in history or in life that would give me any insights.

I was very much the country boy going to undergraduate debates where there were skilled speakers from Pres and Christians and so on. It took a long time to hone my own public speaking skills.

My advice to anyone who wants to speak in public is that you have to be primarily interested in what you are saying. There is a moment of revelation when you have to look an audience in the face and speak up and speak out.

A good historian needs a spirit of enquiry. History remains one of the last humanities. In the end, it is a study of mankind and a branch of literature, as much as anything else.

So far, life has taught me that most people are good and have a fundamental decency. The heroism of certain people never ceases to amaze me. Such as the actions of the people in Union Hall during the recent fishing trawler tragedy.

Some of my great passions, besides my work, are music and singing and, in later years, walking.

If I could change one thing in the country, it would be the quality and availability of education. I agree with Thomas Davis, “Educate that you may be free”, in the political sense. Education brings profound freedoms. It is the key to everything.

Much of my career has been spent in public life. In 1977 I was privileged to be elected as a representative of the NUI constituency as an independent member of Seanad Éireann. Besides helping with the legislative process, I worked to improve British-Irish relations, to separate the state from the Catholic ethos and to encourage the Irish language to be cherished for its own sake, not simply as a adjunct to nationalism.

I met the Queen during her visit in May. It was a strange experience as I was not a notable monarchist although I had been pleading for a visit for some time for British-Irish politics. I told her the symbolic story of the statue of her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, which was erected in UCC in 1849 and remained there until 1934 when it was put in storage and then bizarrely buried in the President’s Garden. In 1995, to mark the 150th anniversary of the Queen’s College foundation, it was resurrected. Her visit was also symbolic. It said a lot for our people’s development, that we welcomed her not with a tugging of the forelock but simply as a distinguished visitor who was quite charming.

Highlights of my career include being appointed Professor of Irish History in UCC, being awarded an honorary doctorate from NUI and being named Cork person of the year. But perhaps the honour I treasure most is becoming a Freeman of Macroom. But whether or not that entitles me to free parking will be the acid test.

Where Finbarr Played, a history of sport in UCC, is available now from bookshops, priced €29.99, online at or directly from the Visitor Centre, UCC. Contact, 021-4901876,


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